Water in Guajoyo comes from a spring up in the mountain, through a filter, and then carried by gravity down a 2 inch PVC pipe to the communities of Miramar, Guajoyo, and Granzaso. The system was built in 1994 with funds from the sister city committee in Austin, which at that time was part of a church.
The armed conflict in El Salvador ended in 1992, so the water system was put in place at the beginning of the resettlement process when the populations of these three communities were still very small. Guajoyo has since then turned into a budding young community, quickly outgrowing the census count from one year to the next. The tiny pipes carrying precious water are hardly enough to supply these communities, and in addition to the extended break in water at this current moment, there are frequently days here and there when the communities further downhill of the system do not receive water at all. According to those who were present when the system was built, they simply did not have the vision at that time to imagine how much their communities would grow in the next 20 years.
The system is administrated by a committee made up of elected individuals from the communities, who do this grand service on a totally voluntary basis. They give up their Sundays to go walking door to door collecting people’s water payments to maintain the system, they coordinate with engineers when there are problems to be it fixed, and they often bear the brunt of lots of disgruntled community members when there are problems with the system.
On March 13 the water was cut off, and for a few weeks they still turned it on in the nights, long enough for the people who made the sacrifice of waking up in the wee hours before dawn to fill their pilas, which are large concrete tubs from which families scoop their water for washing, bathing, and everything else. On Sunday of this week, water no longer came in the nights, leaving the pilas dry, and driving people to the river and springs to wash dishes and clothes, bathe, and draw water for drinking. I’m still not totally clear on what it is that happened that caused the cut in water, but from what I understand they were doing some maintenance work repairing a part of the tank, and because they didn’t cut the water off totally while doing repairs, the whole thing broke. Now work is being done to put in place a new filter, and fingers are crossed that by April 12th we will have running water again.
But the two inch pipes that carry the water are still too small, and they are reaching the end of their lifespan. Despite the hard work of the volunteer water committee, the system is treated with bandaids where surgery is needed, and I can’t help but wonder if even after all these repairs it might be broken for good. According to most recent updates, the needed repairs for the entire system would cost about $91,000, an unimaginable amount in a community where most people don’t earn more than $5 a day. To address the current situation, the water committee has spent this week collecting $3 from each family to cover the cost of labor for the installation of the new filter, which even if every family paid wouldn’t amount to more than about $600.
But there is something lovely about the broken water system, and that is the fact that it brings people to community spaces and creates shared experiences. Whereas before I might spend most of the day in the house, now I have to walk down to the spring in the morning to bathe, and there are always at least a few other people there doing the same. We talk, we splash water at each other, we compare notes on how many trips each person has made carrying tanks of drinking water from the spring to their houses. It slows life down, just the basic needs of each day take longer when you have to walk 10 minutes each way plus the sweat and dust it costs to bring a tank of water up the hill. So what do you do? You enjoy the trip, you linger at the river and take advantage of the trip to go for a swim, and while mom washes clothes the kids enjoy splashing around and skipping rocks across the rippled surface of the water.
It reminds me of living in the dorms in college, and how I regret choosing to live in a dorm with private bathrooms, because a few weeks into classes I realized that without the necessity of using shared spaces – like a bathroom, kitchen, laundry room, etc – being alone is too easy, it is too easy to be surrounded by people and never know who they are.
Here in Guajoyo the heat pushes people outside of their houses, where family life is visible, where if you walk down the street, you can easily stop by and pull up a chair or hammock under a mango tree for a quick (or long) visit. The community corn mill is located in the middle of the community and women have to go every day – sometimes twice a day – to grind the corn to make tortillas for their families, and while they mill or while they wait, they are sharing life. Few people have their own cars, so the bus and the pickup that run up and down the main road and down to the highway are social epicenters. The necessity of these shared spaces has an equalizing effect; when you’re perched on a rock washing your dirty clothes next to another community member the two of you are the same, sharing the same community life experiences. And I think that has a lot to do with the incredible social cohesion here.
Perhaps the more comfortable we get the more we cut ourselves off from community spaces and the opportunity to become equals.